Spices & Spandex - the tour de pots

Photo: Tom Perkins
Two crazy English lads set off on a cycling tour from South England to South Africa. Gaining experiences and impressions through 26 countries in 501 days, they also collect recipes. Presenting Tom Perkins and his culinary adventure trip from pub to cape…

On 23rd July 2011, friends Tom Perkins and Matt Chennells went on a Pub Crawl of a different kind: They intend to cycle from Tom’s local pub in South England, to Matt’s local Pub in Cape Town. Their bicycles are called Winston and Joseph, they feature the simplest equipment but are heavily loaded. Tom is 23 years old, Matt only 22.

 

Tom, you are neither an exceptional cyclist nor a professional chef. How do you come up with such an idea of going on culinary and cycling trip?

It was a typical idea in the pub. I had just got my degree. Politics, history and film… So the question arises what to do with that. The answer: Better take some time off first and travel the world. And the bicycle was the easiest way to start.

 

The caravan passes by: Jordan. | Photo: Tom Perkins

Why is that?

Because you experience everything more intensively on a bicycle. You are part of the landscape and you can feel the elements on your skin. It also opens the doors to other cultures. People approached us quickly. First, they have great respect for the achievement, and second, they are curious. They wanted to know where we came from and where we were going. And then there was our appearance: two guys with a great dream and heavily loaded bikes which constantly broke down …

Was it your idea from the very beginning to collect recipes for a cookery book on your way?

Yes, absolutely. I already had the title of the book in mind when our trip was only the spark of an idea. I love food, I love cookery books. And it is not all about recipes, is it? A good cookery book is a visual experience which inspires with variety and creativity. I wanted to capture all the different elements which food represents to  me. Each dish is therefore connected with a story, with an experience.

And especially with people.

Exactly. Of course you can get to know the cuisine of a country eating in restaurants and sampling street food. If you really want to get to know it though, you need to enter people’s homes. However, you cannot simply walk in and say: Invite us to your kitchen! You get to know people, feel connected and build up trust. We told them about our project and my interest in local traditional food. So I often got invited into their kitchen and got closer to the people. No matter where you go, food is an important ingredient of society. Nothing brings you closer to the heart of a culture.

After the first weeks warming up, Tom and Matt arrive in the Balkans. In Ljubljana, they dance and drink with an 80-year old DJ who has hearing aid devices on both ears and a weak bladder. In Croatia, they meet a fisherman and eat his legendary “BBQ Ovrata” at a little restaurant near Rudi. In Macedonia, they have Benjamin’s “best of the best borek”.

 

In the book, you write that you had not given much thought to physical preparations …

Oh dear, we were badly prepared! Matt’s fitness level was disastrous. His strategy really was to not get too exhausted beforehand but save his energy for later. And I had broken my leg badly a few months before playing rugby. There was basically just a thin stick-like thing hanging on me without muscles – but with a metal plate from the knee to the ankle.

Name: Tom James Marshall Perkins
; Date of birth: 2 August 1987; Occupation: Writer, chef and worker in a gin distillery. | Foto: Tom Perkins

And you had no idea about technique and orientation, did you?

We did not have a clue about many other things either. Even our start was incredibly unprofessional: We left a bag in the pub. And then after only ten kilometres, a chain broke. How do you fix something like that? We had no idea. An ancient DIY repair book saved our day – we had only bought it because it was so cheap. And we also had an old phone and a GPS that we never used. We were very unfit, had hardly any muscles and were basically very naive too.

And still, you accomplished the tour from England to South Africa. How do you master such a tour?

To be honest, I believe it was only because of our naïve  and no-worries attitude. We were game for everything. And when you do not think things over too much, then you also do not consider negative aspects and do not develop any fears and anxieties. It was much more important that Matt and I got along well and that we are both extremely stubborn. We had planned to do something and we were going to make it work. Our strengths were our curiosity and our determination. Without such traits, you do not hop on a bicycle – having hardly made any plans – and pedal with so much weight up steep hills in rain and storms or through seemingly endless deserts.

The further the trip and the poorer the regions, the greater the hospitality. Food is always in the centre. An invitation in Jordan means: “Don’t bring anything, eat everything.” In the middle of the Sinais Desert, Hassan opens up a kitchen out of his floor of his truck and makes a Chicken Kabsa. They are both well fed, but Tom’s knee is causing serious trouble.

 
Small country, great welcome: in a town in Malawi. | Photo: Tom Perkins

Which countries surprised you the most?

Many! We were amazed by the beauty of Switzerland at the very beginning, but especially fascinated by unknown regions. Albania! We had never thought we would encounter such a beautiful country with such friendly people. Or Ethiopia! We had started out with stereotype images in our head that we had to turn completely inside out. It is a real shame that we are often exposed to such twisted images of places. Or of religions.

What do you mean?

It was not until we were in Islamic countries that we realised that hospitality is an important part of their religion. Every Muslim feels religiously obligated  to help the less fortunate and to welcome them in their house. They do not take anything in return. The hospitality was always overwhelming. Nobody ever thought that strangers could steal something from them. They were curious and inquisitive and really wanted to help.

Shared joy is quadruple joy: Baklava in Istanbul. | Photo: Tom Perkins

Was it always peaceful?

We did not experience any dangerous moments which were caused by people. Only once in Cairo: We had decided not to travel through Syria – the only rational decision of the whole trip. So we made our way across Jordan to the African continent and to Egypt. Suddenly, we were in the middle of the Arabian Spring. We stayed in a shared flat where one of the leading bloggers of the revolution was living. Away from Tahrir Square, life was pretty much normal. But we wanted to witness this historical event as closely as possible. And so we walked into the crowd on the square – until a man approached us and said: “Boys, you need to leave. People are watching you and think you are Israelis.” Out of nowhere, an escort appeared in front of us to protect us and lead us away.

How often did you simply want to go home?

Just once. I was in the desert in Sudan. My girlfriend had dumped me because she did not want to wait any longer. I kept on pedalling monotonously in the heat and asked myself what I was doing there. The people I love were far away, my knee was painful, the bike was constantly broken…

And how did you focus back on South Africa?

I am an essentially positive person and as I said before, very stubborn. You are responsible for yourself. I had made my decision and I wanted to go through with the journey.

After troubled Egypt, Tom and Matt arrived in Sudan. Adam, an unemployed lawyer, hosts them and takes them with him to weddings and traditional wrestling events.

 
The taste of the wide world: Spices have been the driving force for travel and trade for centuries. | Photo: Tom Perkins

In your book, you describe the Republic of Sudan as a very special place.

The Sudan was a unique experience. A country of extremes which is made up of 600 tribes. It was such a privilege to cook with the women because usually the area is barred to men – especially foreign men.

How did that happen?

We ended up with an incredible guy named Adam in Sudan and lived for weeks with his family. He loved to feed me with exotic food. He always said: “Close your eyes” and put something into my mouth.  It was an incredible honour when I was allowed to watch the women cook and help them.

How did you communicate with the women?

Often with gestures, but in this case it was all about watching. To see what they use and how they use it.

After this ceremony in Ethiopia, Tom will say: “The best coffee of my life”. | Photo: Tom Perkins

But they could not tell you the recipe.

No, but it was not about that. Many cultures do not have the written tradition. Cooking is passed on to others and is intuitive. I did not want to fill “Spices & Spandex” with rigid recipes but with dishes that were cooked at a particular place and time – and that are free for interpretation. I want them to inspire discovery and experiments. Just as it happened to me. I had not seen, smelled and eaten many of the things ever before. For me it was constant exploration, tasting and playing. Openness and inspiration are important parts of food culture to me.

Tom’s knee meets the Bedouin Badry. He takes the young English man to a doctor in the little oasis of Farafra who owns old x-ray equipment. Eight men stood around Tom and decided on the verdict: Chondromalacia patellae – cartilage damage behind the kneecap. The cure: absolute immobilisation.

 

Your bicycle Winston conked out – and then your knee as well …

Yes, for a while we took turns. Either Winston gave up – or my knee. I have a metal rod in my leg, and the daily pedalling overstrained my knee. In Egypt we joined forces and gave up.

Was the disappointment not too great?

Not really. Sure, we had pain and frustration, but during our trip things were put into perspective. In the countries we travelled through, it is all about finding solutions for seemingly insoluble problems. To give up without effort and simply throw in the towel was just not the deal there. It is not even an option. You look for an alternative and keep on going. And in all honestly, when you see what the people there have to worry about, your own problems seem to be insignificant in comparison.

So you found an old motorbike with sidecar?

Frankie was the name I christened it. A Czech Sudanese. A totally decrepit vehicle from the Soviet-era which I found in a searing temperature of 40 degrees in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. It was love at first sight. Unfortunately, you also say that love makes you blind. I was maybe suffering from heat exhaustion and dazzled. I really wanted to go further with this vehicle – a totally crazy idea because it was in such a desolate condition.

Affluent fishermen in Tanzania. | Photo: Tom Perkins

Which means?

Well, the handlebars were bent, the ignition did not work most of the time, the indicator worked as little as the front brake, the exhaust pipe always kept dropping off and after 29 kilometres, the speedo cable broke. Frankie was pretty much undrivable. But the good thing was I had no clue about motor bikes. My exception were not very high – and I was so in love with the thing.

Nevertheless, it must have been tough to get stuck with Frankie in the middle nowhere?

Sure, but we did not embark on the journey with the intention of having a simple ride to Cape Town. We wanted intensive experiences, no dullness or boredom. If you are looking for idyll, you will not find adventure. I believe you only experience the incredibly beautiful moments when you experience the opposite. We had been pushing the heavy bike for hours without having eaten anything for the whole day, we did not know where to spend the night and then, suddenly a man shows up out of nowhere and says: “Let me help push. We are in this together.” 

That was in Ruanda, wasn’t it?

Yes, and the guy’s name was Frank… So we pushed Frankie to his hut. He insisted on taking Frankie inside but it would not fit through the door. So he removed it. Unbelievable. Then he invited a befriended mechanic and half an hour later, Frankie was up and running again. It was parked in one room, there were a few cows in the back room, and we were sitting eating in between.

The African sun burns Tom’s face and his cuticles, his nose bleeds because of the heat and the dust. He wraps shirts around his hands, he hardly has any sensation in them. He is welcomed in a desert village and a giant cobra is quickly removed from his bedroom. On his first morning in Ethiopia, he wakes up with a fat rat on his face.

 
Robista shows Tom how to bake Chapatis at the foot of Mount Kenya. | Photo: Tom Perkins

In Ethiopia, you even put two more passengers on Frankie …

I saw this man leaning on a stick on the side of the road and stopped. We could hardly understand each other but I asked him how far he was going. He drew a three and I thought he meant kilometres. Then I saw the girl sitting underneath a tree. Probably his daughter. Totally exhausted and frightened, without shoes, maybe six or seven years old. We put her in the side car with my old bicycle helmet on her head, and she smiled with the biggest grin ever. Her father sat behind me, and we drove for hours. After around 100 kilometres, he tapped me on my shoulder. We had reached their home. And then I realised: I had thought he meant three kilometres, but no, he had mean three days walking, that was what he had been saying …

After six months and many breakdowns, Frankie’s time was coming to an end. How did the journey continue?

My knee got a bit better and I could get back onto a bicycle. In Malawi, we stayed with a family on their sugar cane farm, and the lady of the house said: “I’ve got a bike you can have.” It was an old one, too small, but I thought it was great. I made bicycle bags out of tubes and sacks and we started the last stage of our journey.

How did you decide how long you would stay at which places?

We never had a strict plan. We were very lucky to always be at one with each other. Often, it was by intuition. At one point you just know when it is time to move on. Sometimes you do not get the chance to stay longer, and sometimes you find a place for weeks – it is all by chance.

Kenyan road sign in Swahili and English. | Photo: Tom Perkins

Over time, did you notice a difference in how people handle food?

The biggest difference is that between the West's attitude and that prevailing in other countries – basically food appreciation when you do not have an oversupply as we do. But there is actually more to it. We always said that something changes as soon as people no longer sit with cutlery at a table. When everybody gathers around the food and takes it with their hands, it is a much more intimate experience. You share something, there is somehow a closeness, and you would never eat alone.

What was it like to arrive at your destination after all those impressions and exertions?

Honestly it felt good. Sure, the daily adventure came to an end after 501 days but our families were waiting for us and we were extremely looking forward to that. It was a bit more difficult to rehabilitate back into society.

In what way?

There were a few things I could not handle very well. Amongst other things, how we handle “problems” which are  actually something and nothing. And I questioned all kind of consumption: Do you need that? Not really. It slowly improved and now I have also arrived properly in London. It is great that you can find the spices here too, and can order them online. Zatar is a spice I always cook with. Always.

It almost sounds like you have settled down. Are you not permanently infected as a traveller?

Yes, definitely. I feel as if it is about time to get moving again. I am already planning. This time, I want to go to central and south America. With an auto rickshaw. That’s the plan.

Again, for such a long time and with a focus on food?

I am currently planning on a year, and yes, the focus will definitely be on food.

 

Globetrotter Magazin Info

Spices & Spandex – The bicycle trip

Tom and Matt travelled more than 20,000 km  through 26 countries over 501 days. After Tom’s knee gave up in Sudan and he switched to a motor bike, they went different ways for a while. Tom was often slower on his machine than Matt, whose bicycle Joseph held out all the way to Cape Town. After six months, Tom’s motor bike gave up the ghost but his knee allowed him back onto a bicycle. During their journey, two other South African friends joined them. While Tom and Matt cycled in Spandex (their tight cycle pants), Jimmie and Buster preferred shorts. Tom now lives in London, Matt in South Africa. They skype regularly.

 

 

The book of the tour

On thick paper and 365 pages, the book serves recipes, enriched with anecdotes and spiced with British humour. The eyes have a feast on the pictures documenting the journey and the food. Tom is no trained chef and no educated photographer or designer but he has written, designed and published the book on his own. Available for 34.99 euros at Globetrotter (order number 26.82.47).

 

 

 

 

 
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